I was reading NBA Fanhouse this morning and came across an interesting piece by Tom Ziller. The jist of the story? NBA owners were forced to shell out all the big bucks they spent this offseason. They HAD to remain competitive in order to make money, so they HAD to overpay for a decent team that will win a few games.
According to Ziller, the huge money owners are spending isn’t ammunition for the players in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Rather, it’s an indictment of the times, a sign that penny-strapped owners are trying to win and earn money at any costs. These outrageous signings aren’t sure-fire ways to lose lots of money, they are desperate attempts to maintain a fanbase and earn a buck or two in the process. But there are problems with Ziller’s thinking.
On the surface, his contention seems like a possibility. Losers don’t make money. People aren’t going to buy tickets to see last year’s Nets, and they aren’t going to buy jerseys of the worst players in the league, so owners need to put a winner on the floor. Even if it means overpaying for mediocrity, mediocrity beats the basement any day of the week. Most markets can fill up a stadium with a playoff team, even if that team will undeniably get trounced in the first round. But what doesn’t fill a stadium is a loser. So it makes sense, kind of, for a team to overpay for mediocre players that will help the team win yet still keep the team short of contending for a title. After all, an owner’s got to put butts in the seats. Even if it means mortgaging the future for a few playoff appearances in the short run.
But what Ziller kindly fails to mention is that a lot of the players being signed this offseason to monster contracts don’t take their teams to the next level. In fact, one of Ziller’s main arguments is that teams like the Bucks HAVE to sign players like Drew Gooden and John Salmons to big contracts – that signings like those are the only way to make them contenders. But are Gooden and Salmons really making any team contenders? Please. Are they really even the pieces to take Milwaukee out of the first round? Probably not. Is Darko Milicic really going to help the Timberwolves get into the playoffs and put some rumps in the stands? Umm, well, they were 2-22 after they acquired him last season, so I’d say no. Is Travis Outlaw going to help the Nets become better than they were last season? Maybe a tiny bit, but will his addition alone make them a playoff team? No way. Is Wesley Matthews the player to bring the Portland Trail Blazers to the next level? I highly doubt it. Is Brendan Haywood going to win the Mavericks a championship ? Not a chance.
Do you see where I’m going with this? It’s one thing if the owners had been overspending for players that will really help their teams win or at least become formidable. That’s why the Joe Johnson and Rudy Gay deals are at least defensible. Without those two players, the Hawks and Grizzlies would have taken a big step backward. But these other deals? All this other money owners are spending out of their supposedly broke asses? They aren’t moves that help teams get much better, or even at all better. Substitute a veteran’s minimum guy for Darko and the Wolves would be just as good. Probably a bit improved, in fact. The same goes for all those other guys I mentioned. Can’t teams find cheaper replacements that would provide almost the same production?
Ziller makes the argument that small-market teams can’t attract the better free agents, so they have to offer mediocre players contracts they can’t turn down in order to field a competitive team. And maybe Ziller’s right. Maybe that’s why all this free agent nonsense is going on. But you know what? Rebuild in the lottery, develop your players, make smart signings and smarter trades. Even small-market teams can succeed that way. Just ask Sam Presti and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
So Ziller can keep talking about how the owners are forced into this, that they have no choice but to overpay scrubs in order to stay competitive and make money. But that isn’t the proven way to win. It isn’t the proven way to make money. Nobody’s buying tickets just to see Drew Gooden and John Salmons play basketball, folks. I promise.